Magical Education and the Slide into Third-Worldism

Though the U.S. is indisputably a first-world nation, this is not the typical human condition. Far more commonplace are the billions of people who, in the words of political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, live lives that are nasty, brutish, and short -- the third world. Here things work sporadically, if at all. Third-worldism might be viewed as a communicable illness, a situation often witnessed when nice neighborhoods almost overnight slide into crime-infested, trash-filled slums. So how can we spot the early warning signs of creeping third-worldism?     

Diligence is required, and while some outcroppings are clear -- e.g., crushing government debt to fund make-work public jobs -- other early manifestations are less visible. Let me therefore play public health official and highlight a situation in Detroit that has all the earmarks of an "outbreak" of plague-like third-worldism. And rest assured: If this calamity-in-the-making thrives in Detroit, it will spread, if it has not done so already.

Instigating Detroit's third-world slide is its schoolchildren's woeful academic performance. A mere 2% of its high school graduates are prepared for college-level math; just 11% are ready for college-level reading. In 2008-2009, its graduation rate was 58% compared to the national average of 89%. In 2009, Detroit public-school students posted the worst math scores in the forty-year history of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test. Students are fleeing at jailbreak speed -- between 1997 enrollment dropped from 175,168 students to 84,000 and continues to fall, and those remaining are probably the worst of the worst.         

The statistics are hardly unusual; noteworthy is Detroit's intended solution, and it is here that the third-world virus may escape the laboratory and infect America more generally. The chief culprit is something called the Excellent Schools Detroit initiative, a solution backed by state officials, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, and two wealthy private foundations. Its aim is to increase the high school graduation rate from 58% to 80% and then insure that 90% of these graduates enter college. Critically, to achieve this aim, low-performing schools will be closed and replaced with, according to officials, seventy high-performing schools.      

Given expensive disappointments elsewhere to solve similar inadequacies, failure is predictable, but disappointment per se is not the issue. The scheme's alluring third-world mentality is far more alarming.

One tip-off is the focus on upping the number of diplomas, not imparting measurable knowledge. Those familiar with "education" in third-world nations will immediately recognize the pattern: owning a document that officially proclaims the holder to be "educated" becomes proof of genuine learning regardless of discernible knowledge. There is a cargo cult element here, a belief akin to insisting that holding a driver's license certifies an ability to drive skillfully. To be fair, this diploma-equals-learning conflation is predictable if educational consumers are unsophisticated, but naïveté aside, the upshot is that the document itself takes on magical powers. To paraphrase Descartes, I have a degree, therefore I am educated. Brian May, an English journalist versed in anthropology with firsthand experience in poverty-stricken nations, tells of how total incompetents are hired for top jobs in Nigeria, Iran, and elsewhere solely due to possessing a paper credential. In such cultures, it is inconceivable that the degree-holder is ignorant -- the paper itself, not what is daily accomplished, settles the matter (The Third World Calamity, especially Ch. 4).   

When combined with lax standards regarding "graduate" plus a hiring policy that legally makes degree ownership prima facie proof of competency, third-world chaos is inevitable. Detroit, thanks to its freshly minted, home-grown "graduates," will instantly become known as the city where nothing works despite its "educated" workforce. Compounding this dangerous fantasy is that handing out bogus diplomas is now a cottage industry. Just dumb down courses and tests, give credit for mere attendance, permit failed students to "make up" a year of sloth with a can't-fail, two-hour test (called "credit recovery"), and water down graduation requirements to permit "A"s in phys-ed to wipe out failures in tough academic courses.

Admission to "college" is also an illusionary quest for that magic piece of paper the mere possession of which will supposedly open doors to middle-class success. Ironically, this belief is encouraged by innumerable do-gooder private foundations and corporations, who pump millions into community colleges ever happy to have tuition-paying bodies. The tip-off that this "college education" is an empty ritual to get a piece of paper is the stunning incidence of remedial education, essentially repeating high school courses. In 2005-2006, some 99.3% of public two-year community colleges offered remedial work, nearly all of it futile -- only 17% of these enrollees ever obtained college degrees, and the overwhelming majority could not even finish the remedial courses. In other words, it's the physical paper, not the learning, that is being sought, as if that brings middle-class jobs.   

But of all the educational "reforms" reflecting a third-world magical mentality, none outshines the conviction that the school physically, and not the students in it, is the source of inadequacy. Now, as primitive people once imputed all their sins to a goat and became sin-free after sacrificing the goat, horrific test scores will similarly vanish once the "bad school" is shuttered, denounced, and replaced with a "good school." That the school's occupants, probably even the same teachers, books, and administrators will be unchanged is irrelevant. It is as if the building were possessed by demons that disrupted learning, and therefore one must exorcise them to escape cursed illiteracy.

The obvious problem of creating seventy brand-new schools when dozens of empty old "possessed" ones are readily available, and while Detroit totters on the edge of bankruptcy, is hardly insurmountable. Just close the "bad school" with great fanfare, and then, with even more ceremony, reopen it with a new name, probably a name imbued with powerful magic -- so, for example, innumerate youngsters can now attend The Academy of Advanced Mathematics. Again, as per diplomas signifying knowledge, the name itself mysteriously imparts learning, though zero has changed.

We are not crying wolf. The third-world "magic" mentality grows commonplace in education. The NAACP, for example, has successfully pressured schools to up black enrollment in AP classes apart from any demonstrated increase in academic excellence. Similar pressures abound to open up gifted programs for blacks though, again, the reasons cannot be justified academically. One can only speculate that these tough classes are viewed as magical gateways to elite colleges, so just being enrolled, independent of talent or performance, will inexplicably do the trick. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg and his school chancellor have manically closed and reopened schools, often with glittering new names, but to no avail academically. This futile strategy does, however, seem to placate the largely black and Hispanic population that insists that "something be done." The Bloomberg administration has also wildly inflated test scores for both students and schools themselves in the hope of convincing many parents that an "A" student is really smart even if he or she can barely read.

Can America escape this third-world magical approach? In principle, little can be done -- Detroit schools reflect popular desires, and if residents choose to think magically, they are free to do so, subject to Michigan law. Nevertheless, Detroiters should recognize that if they want first-world benefits -- everything from reliable, clean running water to functioning hospitals -- then first-world education is mandatory. Detroit educators must eschew printing up diplomas to signify learning among semi-literates and insist that all students learn to read and write at least at eleventh grade level before graduating. Also, forget about "new" schools whose names alone signify erudition, nor is there any need to push the unwilling to college in the hope that the third or fourth exposure to English will bring literacy. Basic, inexpensive proficiency tests abound and can be used tomorrow.  

In the final analysis, if Detroiters want to acquire prestigious-appearing degrees that signify almost nothing, they should be prepared for the consequences -- living in a third-world city where nothing works.     

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana. His latest book is  Bad Students Not Bad Schools.